One hundred people came together at the Robert Russa Moton Museum in Farmville, VA, to participate in a school reunion. But this wasn’t just any reunion. This was an event to honor Prince Edward County students who were affected by the public school closings from 1959-1964. The Moton Museum invited StoryCorps Door-to-Door to come to Farmville for the weekend to record the stories of some of these students and teachers.
Following the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, which held that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” the public schools in Prince Edward County, VA, resisted integration. In 1959, the Board of Supervisors for Prince Edward County refused to appropriate any funds, effectively closing all public schools. The schools remained closed until September 1964 when the Supreme Court, in Griffin v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, held that closing public schools for the sole purpose of race violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
In place of the public schools, a private school called the Prince Edward Academy, opened in Farmville, but black students were not admitted. Some black families with children from kindergarten through 12th grade instead attended informal schools set up in churches. Other black students left town to live with relatives in other counties, while some students didn’t attend school at all.
Bob Hamlin, a student in Prince Edward County who entered 12th grade in the summer of 1959, came to StoryCorps with his wife, Diane, to talk about those times.
“I had always liked school and I had always worked very hard to maintain grades, only to get to this point and to have the rug pulled from under me. So it was pretty devastating,” Bob remembered. Neither of his parents graduated from high school, making Bob’s mother “bound and determined that I was going to get graduated from high school. I would be the first in the family.”
With only one year left in high school, Bob attended Kittrell Junior College in Kittrell, NC, with a group of 57 other black high school students from Prince Edward County. It was a big change for Bob: He had never spent time away from his family, and the dorm and cafeteria lifestyle was new to him. However, he enjoyed school. “Kittrell was a small school. It was, by today’s standards, a poor school. But my classes were great. The teachers taught with passion.”
Bob finished at Kittrell and went on to attend North Carolina Central University. After graduation, he began a 20-year career in the Air Force, followed by a second career in employment training. In 2007, Bob joined the board of directors of the Moton Museum and currently serves as its president.
Reflecting on the school closings and his experiences at Kittrell, Bob told Diane:
I wouldn’t wish this on anybody. But I have come to realize that if you’re happy at this moment in your life, then you’d have to realize that everything before this moment had to take place, because if it didn’t you might miss this moment. Had it not been for Kittrell College, had it not been for schools closing in 1959, you and I might not have met. We would have been worlds apart. And now, we have shared almost 45 years of marriage together.
Bob and Diane’s conversation was recorded in partnership with the Robert Russa Moton Museum.